It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks.
David Rakoff’s back cover blurb of actress Catherine Lloyd Burns’ memoir reads, “Any reader, male or female, who has ever had a mother will be moved and vindicated by Catherine Burns.”
After I read Burns’ debut book chronicling her relationship with her workaholic mother, I thought about his use of the word “vindication,” and concluded that to feel “vindicated,” the work in question must be at least somewhat vindictive in spirit. Inarguably, It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks is a vindictive memoir, a cathartic rant against a mother that did not seem to love or support her daughter enough throughout her childhood.
Every slight is remembered: Cathy was left with nannies while her mother traveled the globe with her showbiz executive father, after his death she is warned “not to use [his death] to manipulate others,” she is sent to boarding school while her mother forges a top-notch academic career, she does not feel she has her mother’s approval until she gets cast in a hit TV show (she played Malcolm’s teacher in Malcolm in the Middle), and on and on, until every last stone is thrown.
Halfway through the book, I started getting depressed, and not on Burns’ behalf – I began feeling sorry for her mother.
I’ve made a minor career of refusing to participate in the blasted “Mommy Wars” in any way, shape or form, to the extent that I’ve come under serious criticism for refusing to judge the choices of other mothers. This book is carrying the flag in the Judgment Parade (flag emblem: wagging finger), not only wagging the finger at her mother, but at all parents who don't meet Burns' standards, and as I read it I felt increasingly defensive. My issue, my problem, I know, but there it is. I didn't feel vindicated reading it. Rather, I felt guilty for each time that I indulged in some of my own dramatic mother-blaming. With one notable anecdote involving a young Catherine and the elevator doorman in their building – and the error on her mother’s part here even I must say is unforgivable indeed – I felt the book was turning into a long, protracted adolescent tantrum, and I desperately hoped Burns could manage to stop indulging herself long enough to get over it already.
Which is sort of what happens when Burns begins writing about the birth of her own daughter. In the book’s second part, she begins dropping hints that maybe she’s beginning to understand and accept her mother just a little bit, and by the book’s end, she seems to have reconciled her desire for the non-existent icon of the mother she wants with the actual mother she has, an irritable, flawed human being. Burns begins to communicate with her mother for the very first time and it is then that she realizes the methods behind her mother’s seeming madness, and many of the times she thought her mother was being insensitive, she had simply misunderstood her mother’s motivations.
Olive [Burns’ daughter] and I are in the park with my mother. They are playing peekaboo. Olive is on the wobbly bridge and my mother is underneath looking up through the slats. My mother looks so happy; like a real grandmother. Olive is laughing. It’s a genuine Kodak moment. I look around to see if any of my friends, the other mothers, are here. I want someone else to see how great my life is right now. Olive screams. I turn back around. She has fallen. I pick her up. In my arms I watch her eyes roll back in their sockets, her head go slack, her arms and legs twitch almost rhythmically. This can’t be real, This can’t be happening, I say to myself.
“Olive? Olive what is it? Are you okay? Oh my God, baby, are you all right?” Her eyes are on me, but she is looking through me. She is completely vacant. May daughter is in my arms in another dimension and I can’t penetrate it. I take her to a bench and try to nurse her.
“What’s she doing? Is she eating?” my mother says. I nod.
“What’s she doing? Is she drinking?”
“YES,” I say like I am speaking to a deaf person.
“She’s all right. She’s fine,” she tells me.
“Yeah, I guess so, but that was so weird. She looked like she was having a seizure. It was so scary.”
“She’s fine, she doesn’t even remember. There,” she pokes her.
“She’s fine,” she tells me again. “She’s fine.”
“Well I think I’m going to call the doctor.”
“Nooohh, she’s fine, she doesn’t even remember. Do you? Peekaboo. She’s fine. She’s forgotten all about it.” For some reason this makes me feel neurotic and too emotional. “I’m not afraid she’s traumatized,” I say. “I just want to talk to a doctor. She’s going to bed soon. I want to make sure she doesn’t have a concussion.”
“She’s fine,” my mother repeats, like I am crazy.
Two hours later the phone rings.
“What’d he say? How is she?” It is my mother. “What did the doctor say?”
“He said it sounded like she went into a little bit of shock and was probably fine and if we wanted to be really safe we should go to the emergency room, but he didn’t think that was necessary so he said we should wake her up in a couple of hours and make sure she is ‘rousable.’ Which is excellent since she only started sleeping though the night two weeks ago.”
Eight on the dot the next morning my mother calls.
“How is she?”
“Good. I was so scared.”
“You were?” I say. “Then why did you keep saying she’s fine?”
“Because you were so frightened. I wanted to calm you down.”
“I had no idea you were worried.’
“Of course I was. I was absolutely terrified. But I didn’t want us both to be.”
It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks is a memoir guaranteed to bring out strong emotions in the reader. We all have mothers, and it is impossible to read many of the scathing indictments in the novel objectively, without applying the situation to our relationship with our own mothers or, if we are parents, our relationships with our children. If you have an axe to grind with your mother, this book will be a cathartic adrenaline rush to the system. If your mom is your best friend, you may find the reading tough going. And if, like most of us, your relationship with your mother has had its ups and downs, or if you’ve already reconciled your feelings about what your mother may or may not have accomplished with regards to her raising of you, your feelings may be somewhat mixed.
It Hit Me Like a Ton of Bricks
By Catherine Lloyd Burns
2006 by North Point Press
Hardcover, 225 pp.